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August 13th 2020

Medical Negligence

Review into Covid-19 deaths of frontline health staff is essential to establish how many were infected through work and the lack of PPE

Sue Jackson

Sue Jackson

Solicitor, Clinical Negligence

Review into Covid-19 deaths of frontline health staff is essential to establish how many were infected through work and the lack of PPE

It is entirely right that all deaths of frontline health and social care staff infected with coronavirus are now being reviewed to consider whether a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) caused them to contract the virus.

It is entirely right that all deaths of frontline health and social care staff infected with coronavirus are now being reviewed to consider whether a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) caused them to contract the virus.

The Independent newspaper says the review, which started last month, is likely to cover more than 620 deaths including nurses, doctors and care home staff across England and Wales, since the beginning of March.

It is being carried out by medical examiners, who are senior doctors employed in hospitals to independently review all deaths to verify the correct cause of death, and identify any treatment concerns.

Their work is made accountable to a national medical examiner.

As part of the review they will look to determine whether the infection was caught as a result of their work, with their findings possibly resulting in further investigations by hospitals and the Health and Safety Executive.

It was widely reported during the peak of the pandemic in the UK that hospitals ran out of protective masks and clothing for staff, with many NHS staff groups and families pointing to inadequate PPE potentially exposing them to the virus.

Now, quite rightly, talk is of cases being reported to the coroner where necessary.

The review will see the causes of death checked to indicate whether the worker was tested for Covid-19 and what the test result showed. It will then conclude whether there was “reason to suspect the Covid-19 infection was acquired in employment”.

Where someone may have died as a result of catching coronavirus at work, hospitals will be required to report that to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) under Riddor, or the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations, the Independent reports.

Fully independent investigations key to ensuring ‘no death is left unscrutinised’

A medical examiner quoted in the Independent says that ‘no death will be left unscrutinised’, and that certainly must be the case.

In our work at Hudgell Solicitors, we know that the key to any successful investigation is true independence, and with that in mind, we support the comments made by Dr Rinesh Parmar, chair of the Doctors’ Association UK.

He has called for cases where there is reason to suspect that healthcare staff were infected at work be passed to coroners, as their independence will ensure they won’t be ‘persuaded to make certain decisions or recommendations.’

The Chief Coroner’s Guidance on ‘Covid-19 deaths and possible exposure in the workplace’ states that, while the focus should remain an inquiry about a particular death, ‘Coroners are entitled to look into any underlying causes of death, including failures of systems or procedures at any level’.

The Government, encouragingly, has already committed to a life assurance lump sum payment of £60,000 to relatives of families of health and care workers who died from the virus as a result of their duties and Health Secretary Matt Hancock has expressed a “deep personal sense of duty” to care for them.

However, far more still needs to be done to support those families and ensure our healthcare staff are better protected for any future similar scenario.

Lessons have to be learned to improve safety for all who work in the healthcare system. That has to be the priority and we must never lose sight of the need to properly support the families who have been affected.

We are still to gain a full understanding of the impact beyond the reported death numbers as people who have recovered from the virus but have spent a significant amount of time in intensive care, or suffered from pneumonia or respiratory distress, could be affected physically, and psychologically, longer term.

We are pleased to see such important reviews starting now, as we need to ensure lessons are learned as quickly as possible, especially given the virus shows no signs of disappearing.

We also need to start having very important conversations now as to how best to support the many families who lost the people they loved, when they were doing their jobs saving others during this national crisis.

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